Text: Mark 8:37-45 (“take up your cross”)
Peter gets a bad rap in the gospels. He is the first person Jesus calls as a disciple. He has more conversations with Jesus than anyone else. He is present at every turn in the story, from the mission in Galilee, to the Transfiguration that Bruce preached about last Sunday, to the events in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus singles out Peter as the rock upon which he will build his church. So, Peter is an important figure.
But Peter also comes in for a lot of criticism. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus warns that Peter will deny him three times, which, despite Peter’s protestations, he does a few hours later. On that same night, Jesus chastises Peter for falling asleep while Jesus is praying. And in today’s reading, Jesus calls Peter a Satan (!) for not appreciating Jesus’ predictions of death.
Many of us might resonate with Peter’s reaction. When Jesus asks his friends who they think he is, Peter says “the Messiah,” or Jewish king. Jesus doesn’t disagree with this, but he says that he is a king who will suffer, who will be rejected by the religious leaders, and who will be put to death.
Peter is shocked. He and the others who follow Jesus want a king like the ones of ancient story: a military leader who will expel the Romans and restore Jerusalem to its rightful place as both the earthly home of God and the capital of a Jewish empire.
Peter and the disciples love their life with Jesus in Galilee. They preach, heal, and build communities that discard old rules and reach out to so-called sinners.
Now that they are leaving Galilee to travel to Jerusalem, visions of kingly glory dance in Peter’s head. To Peter’s dismay, Jesus immediately dashes those visions by predicting his betrayal and death. Then, Jesus goes further. He says that all who want to follow him must take up their own cross and give up their lives too.
Peter and the others never come to fully understand this teaching even after they learn on Easter Sunday that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that he has been raised, and they will find him back in Galilee. But despite their lack of understanding, Peter and the others journey to Jerusalem with Jesus.
Peter lets Jesus know what he wants — a Messiah, Christ, or King. Jesus hears him, but immediately dashes Peter’s expectations. Peter complains about this; and Jesus responds with insult and anger.
Instead of offering the disciples what they want, he points them to what they need.
In life, sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t. What Jesus teaches is that we can always get what we need if we receive the Grace to accept life as it is and not as we wish it were.
He says that if we try to cling to our life, we will lose it. But if we deny ourself and give our life away for the sake of Jesus and the Good News then we will gain new life.
Parenting provides a good example, I believe. It is important for parents to know what their children want. But it would be foolish if parents always gave their children what they wanted. Parents are called to establish boundaries and provide care based on their children’s needs and not their wants.
Parenting is also about self sacrifice. When you take on the responsibility of raising a child, you are called to put their needs above yours. Parenting involves seeing life from a child’s perspective – both their desires and their needs; and striving as best as a mortal can to ensure that many of those needs are met.
No parent would say the work is easy. But for many, it is the most rewarding work they ever do. By denying themselves and providing for their children, parents stumble into the truth of the paradox that Jesus preaches. They find new life. Parenting does not always provide what one desires. Instead, it is a life that is lit up with love and shot through with joy. By taking up the cross of parenting, parents lose much of their old selves and find a new life that is radically closer to Love.
The challenges of parenting are many. Knowing one’s own desires is hard enough. Figuring out what children want can be tougher still. Then there is the task of discerning what the family needs. Even harder can be finding ways to fulfill some of those needs, especially in this world of too much greed and violence; and in a society filled with vast opportunities and rapidly-expanding social power.
No one gets it right. All who take up the cross of parenting stumble again and again. Parents can’t always listen so their kids will talk and talk so their kids will listen. They can’t teach their children everything they need to thrive in this crazy world. They can’t provide perfect protection. Parents are fragile mortals with spirits and minds that only partially reflect God’s love.
And yet, all across the world 350,000 children are born every day; and the blessings of family life continue to pour forth in endless fountains of love regardless of the heartache, conflict, and fear that also mark family life. Sacrifice is called for. Sacrifice is often achieved. And children and parents grow spiritually despite all our many personal limitations.
Something similar is found in ministry, I believe. In communities of faith like this one, we are called to mourn and celebrate together, to reach out to our neighbours in love, and to join Peter and the others as followers of Jesus who journey to the cross and beyond to new life.
As in family life, it is useful for a church to know what it wants. But as with parenting, we also learn that our desires are not always in alignment with our needs. We may desire to worship not only the God who is Love, but also the nation or empire into which we were born. The stories of Jesus tell us that we can’t have both, and this can be a painful lesson for us we stumble down the path to Jerusalem.
We may want to deny the poverty in this city and injustices like racism and sexism. The stories of Jesus suggest we do otherwise, and so, we may find ourselves involved in outreach and justice work that conflict with some of our wants, but which, with Grace, provides us with the spiritual growth we need.
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones expressed this 50 years in the song which gives this sermon its title. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”
Lent is a season in which we try to get what we need. But the rigours of the journey don’t mean that we ignore our desires. Spiritual journeys require both a growth cycle and a comfort cycle; both awareness and sleep; both hikes up the sides of mountains and restorative meals around the family hearth.
The journey with Jesus provides both. It is a journey to death and rebirth. It is also one in which we meet each other in joy at the baptismal font of Living Water and in hope at the Communion Table of Living Bread.
As fellow pilgrims, I am grateful when we know what we want and when we strive for what we need. May it be so in this beloved community as it continues its Lenten journey of faith, hope and love towards Easter morning.
Thanks be to God.